Clash! Contrast! I love it: a real disagreement—and one that goes to the root of the purposes and concerns for which this website exists.
Unfortunately, the clash between Mark and me isn’t as sharp as it looks. I agree with him about too much to make a perfect opponent. For that matter, there’s an easy way to sidestep the dispute simply by noting that I was talking about national presidential elections and Mark was talking about regional elections in the Midwest and East. It could well be that we’re both right: the effect of an old-fashioned, blue-collar Catholic vote in certain areas might be visible in the finer distinctions that appear in local elections (e.g., allowing the success of a pro-life Democratic congressman), even while it disappears in the grosser choice that a two-pole presidential race offers us. We should always remember, as we argue about politics, that our two-party system for electing presidents is a pretty blunt instrument for scoring sharp differences among groups of the electorate.
But I don’t want to leave it there—in part because I think Mark is a little wrong even about his local groups of Catholics, but also because I think it’s important to note what we’re not disagreeing about.
Let’s leave that first point aside, for today, and start just with the second one. Back in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles, the George Bush years, there were a bunch of Catholics political activists running around Washington promoting the idea that a distinct Catholic voting bloc existed, and it was the Republicans’ for the taking. I name no names and assign no blame; even as late as 2000, very few people were really aware of the dissolution of the old marriage—the one that united Catholic ethnic voting blocs with the Democratic party—even though it had been visible since 1972.
Catholics didn’t leave their old marriage with the Democrats for a new one with the Republicans, however. As a group, they became instead free actors—and something like the archetypal swing group, flipping from one side to another in different elections. And the trouble with being a perfect swing group is that, in effect, the group disappears. Catholics’ swinging matched the swinging of the nation as a whole; the Catholic vote became pretty much invisible in the general presidential vote of America.
Now, in 2000 and 2004, Catholic activists and pollsters assured the Republicans that, even under the apparent swing of Catholic votes, a unique Catholic vote existed, and it could be captured by the Republicans for good by some outreach and dedication of resources. This Catholic vote could be identified, it was claimed, by drilling down in the polling data and distinguishing Mass-going Catholics from non-Mass-going (i.e., nominal or non-practicing) Catholics. The Hispanics still voted as an ethnic bloc, so they needed to be peeled off, as well. But white Mass-goers: There was an identifiable group that could be called the Catholic vote, since its electoral behavior was clearly distinct from that of the general American population.
Well, okay. The error in identifying this group, however, came from comparing it to the general American population instead of comparing it to a population that was narrowed in the same way. Catholics proved just like the rest of America, when you did that. Peel off the minorities (particularly the religious Black vote), and you found that churchgoers in general were distinct from non-churchgoers. Far from being unique, white Mass-goers were pretty much the same, on election day, as anybody who goes to any church regularly.
In other words, you’re not going to find a unique and useful Catholic vote by distinguishing practicing Catholics from non-practicing Catholics. All the distinction reveals is that, among white voters in general, the more religious they are, the more Republican they vote in presidential elections.
Of course, in his post taking issue with me, Mark Stricherz doesn’t claim that Mass-goers make a unique Catholic vote. Why would he? It wasn’t true in 2000, and it isn’t true now, and Mark is a sharp observer of electoral data.
And that’s the point I want everyone to take away, at this point. Sure, the idea that “Practicing Catholics form a distinct presidential voting bloc” was an attractive one, for conservative activists and political analysts, alike. But it was a snare and a delusion—both politically and intellectually—and we need to resist its lure if we’re going to get on with the task of thinking our way through the questions of how Catholics actually do, and should, vote.